How far can the coffee industry push convenience?

  • Recent data shows that as many as 97% of consumers have backed out of a purchase because it was inconvenient
  • Coffee brands must increasingly cater to an audience that values convenience above all else
  • Is convenience at odds with what specialty coffee stands for?

THE EARLY days of specialty coffee culture were driven by a focus on craftsmanship and quality. But some years on from the early days of the specialty coffee boom, the sheer breadth of the audience has meant embracing more mainstream values.

Chief among these is convenience. For example, 9 of 10 consumers say they’re likely to choose a retailer or brand based on convenience alone. Furthermore, 97% of consumers have abandoned a purchase because it was inconvenient for them.

In response, an increasing number of coffee brands are integrating infrastructure to enhance convenience, such as express store formats, coffee delivery services, and mobile ordering apps. And as brands look to scale, convenience invariably becomes a focal point in order to do this.

At the same time, innovation has long been a hallmark of specialty coffee. For many, this is associated with product development and farming techniques. Increasingly, however, the attention is being turned to how the industry can innovate to meet the growing demand for convenience. 

costa coffee offers convenient solutions in the UK coffee industry

Convenience above all

It becomes evident just how influential convenience is when observing certain segments within the coffee industry that have boomed. For example, the growing popularity of RTD coffee can largely be attributed to this shift towards convenience. 

In 2022, the RTD coffee market was valued at $26 billion, and is projected to reach above $42 billion by 2030 – this represents an annual growth of over 8%.

However, this category has its limitations. For many of these products, there is a trade-off between quality and convenience. Specialty coffee preaches that there is no substitute for freshness – something which is fundamentally at odds with RTD as a format.

But do customers actually care?

The RTD segment is evidence that many don’t. It’s easy to point to it as an example of convenience over all: if a product is convenient enough, a certain percentage of consumers will buy it. 

RTD is just one case study, however. Specialty coffee has now crossed a threshold – it is big enough that convenience comes before more or less everything else. As the market size grows, quality becomes a lesser priority, and brands have to make this sacrifice to scale – or risk being left behind. 

Starbucks leads convenience in many markets in the coffee industry

Ecommerce, digitalisation & more

Convenience is also difficult to disentangle from digitalisation. While ecommerce has been steadily growing for decades, the coffee industry has had a slightly more complex relationship with it – given the historic focus on the coffee shop as a “third space”.

But this changed dramatically in 2020. During the pandemic, more roasters started offering subscription models direct-to-consumers via ecommerce, while coffee shops were forced to pivot to takeaway and drive-thru to survive. 

The industry was pushed to rapidly become more convenient out of necessity in most major consuming countries. But as lockdown measures eased around the world, this trend didn’t revert – showing that the pandemic likely just accelerated something that was going to happen anyway. 

One great example is mobile ordering. Popularised during the pandemic, they now play a crucial role in the coffee industry (especially in certain markets, such as China). So what does the future hold? 

“In the best-case scenarios, there will be no lines, no waiting time for your product, just pay and receive or pick up,” says Ashleigh Nestadt, co-founder of the Coffee Monster.

Where does convenience intersect with quality?

It’s easy to say that convenience is at odds with what makes specialty coffee “specialty” – and that it means values which were “traditionally” integral to the sector will have to give way. That said, certain segments of the specialty coffee community will stay focused on quality above all else – but that is a comparatively tiny percentage.

People do increasingly want higher-quality coffee. But this is primarily a switch to slightly better coffee across the board – not a desire to chase down the highest quality coffee at any cost. Should quality come at the expense of convenience or price, most consumers won’t be interested. 

For instance, the number of people willing to wait 15 minutes for a pour over that costs twice the price of a flat white is minimal – and it’s unlikely to grow in any notable sense.

This means that for the vast majority of coffee brands and consumers, convenience will continue to dominate everything. In some segments of the market, we’re sure to see a focus on automation above all else to maximise speed of service and convenience.

For specialty coffee shops and roasters, however, things are likely to be different. But these businesses will still need to ask themselves a more important question: How much more time or money are your customers prepared to exchange for quality? Answering that question will be crucial for survival – and serve as a platform for any future growth.

Coffee Intelligence

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter here.